With just days to go until he opens up his estate to thousands of festival-goers, you’d expect Charlie Gladstone to be a bundle of nerves as he faces up to the prospect of this year’s Good Life Experience.
But instead, the man behind the retro store Pedlars, the Hawarden Estate Farm Shop and now one of the UK’s hottest festival tickets is exuding the kind of plate-spinning calm that only a father-of-six can display.
“It’s going really well,” he grins. “We’ve sold more tickets than we did last year, but we’re a bit stuck between a rock and a hard place. We want to make it brilliant but we don’t want it to become too big.
“It’s an interesting challenge because we have to get the festival to a financially sustainable position but without it getting too big. We will probably reach the right level this year and we want it to grow modestly but the emphasis is really on it being excellent.”
Since it debuted its annual parade of music, food and craft, four years ago, the Hawarden-based Good Life Experience has gone from strength to strength, attracting growing crowd numbers keen to try everything from axe-throwing, spoon-whittling and tree climbing all within the picturesque surroundings of the Gladstone estate.
“We’re very happy and each edition has been better than the one before,” says Charlie, who founded the event with wife Caroline and friends Cerys Matthews and her husband Steve Abbott.
“The big thing we did was not to rely on superstars or household names, whether that was speakers, bands or chefs. We decided we wanted people who were enthusiastic rather than people who will charge a fortune.
“We want to be like Glastonbury where people buy tickets having no idea who’s on the bill. They just know they will have a great time.”
As the Eton-educated great, great grandson of William Gladstone, the four-time British Prime Minister, Charlie is well aware he has privilege on his side but his love and loyalty to the family’s ancestral home is genuine.
“I have a really deep passion for Hawarden,” he says. “My family has been here for 160 years and I think what I can do is contribute things that I’m good at and that’s retail, hospitality and culture.
“Hawarden is a great place anyway but the way I can make it better is by making it a more interesting place to live and work. We’re employing 100 people here now through the farm shop, the festival and the pub and we’re contributing a lot to the local economy.
“In my opinion a great place to live is somewhere you have decent housing, decent schools, nice countryside, jobs and some nice activities to do with your family and friends on a regular basis.
“Think about somewhere like Hay-on-Wye which is another border town. The literary festival has changed that place in ways that are unimaginable. Without the festival it would be just another town that was struggling to get people to visit and stay there but instead it’s thriving.
“We really don’t see why one of the best arts festivals in the world shouldn’t be in North Wales.”
The 53-year-old Oxford graduate has had an eclectic career, from working in the music industry to writing books and running The Magnificent Hound, an online source of accessories for dogs and their owners, and he is conscious how his image as the definitive hipster businessman can look, especially to those on his doorstep.
“I’m an easy target,” he laughs. “I’m the posh kid and I completely get that.
“Our whole philosophy has always been that we don’t want Good Life to be seen as a posh person’s festival. Our tickets aren’t cheap but kids go free and I think people would be staggered if they knew how much it cost to put on a festival.
“I’m sure some locals are sceptical but the support for our businesses in Hawarden has been mammoth. Thousands of people come through our doors every week and I think that has laid the groundwork for our good relationship with Hawarden.
“I can’t pretend I’m someone I’m not but my interests could be the same as anyone’s: nature, pop music and football.
“I think we’ve slowly won people around and we don’t inconvenience anyone. We actually found that over 40 per cent of our guests come from within 30 miles and although I don’t mind who comes it would be great if it was mainly local people.
“If we can build a community of people around Hawarden who are interested in craft, food, the great outdoors and music that would be amazing.”
Charlie and family spend time at 16th-century Balbegno Castle in Kincardineshire, Scotland (renovated and rented out as a self-catering holiday home), and the 15-bedroom, 200-year-old hunting lodge family home in Glen Dye, in the foothills of the Grampians, where the operational site for Pedlars is based.
“People see you living in this big house and they think you must be loaded but in fact you don’t have much choice,” says Charlie, who inherited the family’s estate in the Scottish Highlands.
“The choice would be selling it. I was lucky that my father was completely dedicated to Hawarden Castle and left it in good nick but it can be a nightmare for some people who inherit a house where everything is falling down.
“We’re not a group of people who elicit much sympathy and we don’t ask for it. But what do you do if that’s in your family and you have to look after it? It’s a story that isn’t really told. I’ll have to see what happens with my kids because you’ve got to want to do it.
“I work hard because I feel I have a responsibility towards Hawarden and I decided to have six children so I always need cash! Except for Christmas Days I probably haven’t had a day off in a decade but I love what I do and I’ve managed to create a way of paying the bills for 30 years by doing what I like doing.
“I’ve got a lot wiser about making a profit but it’s not easy – there are lots of entrepreneurs who have made money after inheriting £5k from their granny but they are one in a million and most of us break our back just to get paid.”
Ask Charlie which part of his empire he’s most proud of and it’s clear that the Glynn Arms in Hawarden has an obvious place in his heart after he and Caroline revived the much-loved local into a thriving gastropub.
“We decided to really concentrate on beer because that is your bread and butter and if you get that wrong you’re in trouble.
“I like to think we’re upmarket but we’re not too upmarket. It’s hard to be an aspiring Michelen star restaurant that also has locals in it so what we’re trying to do is to make it suit anyone and everyone. You could be be having a nice party next to three blokes who come in five nights a week and have three pints and that seems to be what we’ve got right.”
It’s hard not to feed off Charlie’s infectious enthusiasm and love for Hawarden, especially when he tells me that appearing in the Leader means far more to him than any national press.
“Hawarden is an unusual place: we have this unbelievably idyllic setting but we’re 10 minutes from Chester and 35 minutes from Liverpool and to find somewhere like that in Britain is so rare but here you can drive off a main road, park in a car park and be in the middle of the countryside in no time.”
The Good Life Experience starts on Friday, September 15 and runs until Sunday, September 17.
See full story in the Leader